Harbaugh at Michigan: A Performance Review

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Harbaugh at Michigan: A Performance Review

Jim Harbaugh came to Michigan at what was perhaps its darkest hour. The Wolverines were fresh off a brutal 2014 season where they went 5-7 under coach Brady Hoke. That season started with an embarrassing loss to Rutgers and included losses to rivals Notre Dame, Michigan State, and Ohio State. 

In the 2021 season, Michigan went 12-2 under Harbaugh. This season featured a win over Ohio State, a Big Ten Championship, and Michigan’s first-ever College Football Playoff berth. The contrast between the pre-Harbaugh Michigan football program and the program now seems to prove his positive impact. Still, he has some pretty stark negative points on his resume. Not everyone is sold on his success or believes that he is the best head coach option for Michigan. With Harbaugh officially announcing his return to Ann Arbor, it is time for a performance review of his first seven years. 

Underdog Woes

Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines won zero games as underdogs prior to the 2021 season. Through his first six seasons, he did not have a single upset victory. This statistic turned into a favorite among the media and quickly became a talking point for Harbaugh’s dissenters. Even the Michigan faithful started to believe that he might not be the right man for the job.

However, it is important to remember where the Michigan football program was before he arrived. He inherited a team whose fans had just watched them lose to Appalachian State. Through the six seasons where Harbaugh did not win a single game as an underdog, there were also zero embarrassing losses to Group of Five teams. Of course, he lost some nail-biters that Michigan fans would have liked to see him win. But, at least those games were against Power Five teams and not teams that you paid seven figures to play.

Culture Change

The Rich Rodriguez and Hoke eras in Ann Arbor seemed to feature Michigan teams that had no problem losing games. There was no fight in those teams. There was no visible desire to win that translated into inspired on-field play. Perhaps the same could be said about some of Harbaugh’s teams, but the 2021 team proved that change is possible. 

2021 Senior Aidan Hutchinson was pivotal in initiating a culture shift. His leadership set the precedent of what was expected out of the Michigan Football squad. He also demonstrated a desire to win games for the coaches and for the program. This desire was previously unheard of in this century’s version of Michigan football and was a welcomed change.

With Hutchinson leaving, it is clear that the young talent on the roster has embraced the desire to win for its coaches and for the program. Quarterback JJ McCarthy, running back Donovan Edwards and wide receiver Andrel Anthony all stayed on the field following Michigan’s blowout loss to Georgia in the CFP. These players, all true freshmen, observed as Georgia celebrated their victory and looked forward to the National Championship game. The young leaders on Michigan’s squad know what their goals are and where they can take this program. 

Relevance On The National Stage

The history and prestige of the University of Michigan lands its football team in the national media, even on off years. Harbaugh built on this and elevated Michigan football to the CFP conversation and it didn’t take long. By the time his second season came around, the Wolverines had assembled a legitimately talented team. This team was an early favorite to make the playoffs but ended up losing 2 heartbreakers and missing the playoffs. 

Throughout the rest of Harbaugh’s tenure, Michigan remained nationally relevant but never seemed capable of breaking into the top tier. It seemed that the ceiling for his teams was a 10-2 season with some key losses that prevented Michigan from reaching elite status. This remained true until 2021 when he finally boasted real improvement. Harbaugh’s 12-2 season in 2021 was certainly enough to quiet the skeptics. Winning a B1G championship and earning a CFP berth finally satisfied the Michigan fans who were calling for his head a year ago.

Certainly, these last few days have brought a lot of national attention to the Michigan football program. With Harbaugh returning he has a chance to build off of his most successful season yet. This season was described by so many inside the Michigan program as “just the beginning.” It remains to be seen if he can elevate the program yet again and make his Wolverines legitimate perennial national title contenders. He has the talent he needs on the roster, so now is the time for Harbaugh to prove that he is the best possible coach for the Michigan Wolverines.